Inside every language learner, there’s an adventurer on a quest to find the Holy Grail.
I’m not talking about medieval knights or mystical, elusive drinkware.
I’m talking about effective methods that help us learn a language: the one platform that will change everything.
There are plenty out there.
From the one that took its name from a stone inscribed with three languages to another inspired by the biblical “Tower of Babel,” language learners have the opportunity to try many different programs to achieve this goal.
Oh, and what about the one with the cute, green owl?
Yes, you know what I’m talking about.
I know what you’re thinking: “Great, another platform review.”
But bear with me adventurer. This isn’t a review.
It’s an examination to see whether the Duolingo method is actually effective in helping language learners like you.
In other words, is it the Holy Grail hiding in plain sight? Can you actually learn to speak a language fluently just by using Duolingo’s much-advertised “five minutes a day” model?
Let’s take a closer look.
How to Evaluate an Effective Language Learning Method
Before we rush into the question of whether or not Duolingo can teach you a language, we first have to ask: “What is an effective language learning method?”
By definition, it should be anything that allows you to reach a certain level of proficiency and confidence in a language in accordance to your needs alone.
In other words, language learners are different in their learning styles and needs. I might be an auditory learner, while you might prefer to lace your studying with a kinesthetic kick.
And then comes the big why: Why are you learning a language? Are you studying in college, preparing for a trip abroad or is there another reason?
In short, to evaluate the effectiveness of a language learning method or program, a learner needs to know what learning style works for them, but more importantly, they need to know why they’re learning said language.
These two things will help the learner set a tangible goal.
Our Goal—Or, What Duolingo Should Be Able to Teach You
As someone who has used Duolingo to study many languages—and I mean, many languages—it’s often quite difficult to gauge what level of language proficiency you can reach with Duolingo.
While that cute green owl doesn’t make any specific promises in terms of what level learners will reach, it does say that learners can “learn a language for free” and claims that Duolingo is “the best new way to learn a language.”
Vagueness of the phrasing “learn a language” aside, for our purposes, let’s define a goal.
Let’s say we want to learn a language so that we can travel to a foreign country for a month. Let’s say we want to stay with a host family there who doesn’t speak English. We’re going to need to communicate all of our needs, wants and desires and be able to carry ourselves through a variety of situations: personal conversations with our host family, shopping, visiting tourist attractions, navigating our new city and everyday life and even handling emergencies if we get in trouble.
According to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), that puts us at an “Independent User” or B1 level in our target language. This corresponds to HSK Level III for learning Chinese and to approximately N3 for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.
So, the real question is, can Duolingo teach us enough to get to this level?
What Is the Duolingo Method?
For those who don’t know, Duolingo is a platform that offers free and premium membership in a variety of language courses. As of June 2020, there are 35 courses for English speakers including French, Korean, Turkish and Welsh as well as endangered languages such as Navajo and artificial languages such as High Valyrian from Game of Thrones.
In a nutshell, the method works by completing multiple lessons within a language tree, while developing knowledge and language skills along the way.
Due to the gamified nature of Duolingo, a visual style of learning is integral to the method and the experience. Many of the lessons come with images and audio recordings, and there are detailed notes called “Tips” for each lesson that explain grammar concepts and vocabulary usage.
In addition to its base program, Duolingo also has Duolingo Stories for select languages that teach through fun and engaging stories as well as Tiny Cards, a digital flashcard program with decks based on Duolingo’s base program, Duolingo Stories and user-generated decks.
Does Duolingo Work?
Now that we know the methodology behind the popular app, let’s see if Duo the Owl can actually teach you how to speak a language.
Does Duolingo Work for Beginners?
Upon choosing a language for Duolingo’s base program, learners have two options: they can either take a “Placement test” to begin the program at the learner’s level or start with “Basics.”
For our purposes, let’s pretend we have no knowledge of our target language. We’ll start with “Basics.”
It Will Teach You Crucial Beginner Words and Phrases
Since our goal in this post is to start speaking on a basic, everyday level as soon as possible, we’ll need to dive right into words and phrases that we can start using right away.
If the language we’re learning has a Latin-based script (the same letters that English uses with some omissions and/or additions), our first lesson goes pretty smoothly. We’re introduced to some basic words for food such as bread and water, for people such as man and woman and even some basic verbs such as eat and drink.
Things are going well! We learn these words with some great pictures and helpful tips, and we even start building sentences very quickly after we begin.
This is a perfect way to start, since it naturally builds our vocabulary, constantly reinforces it and even helps us start putting those words together into basic sentences.
At this rate, we’ll be reaching our goal of B1 in no time!
There Is Very Little Pronunciation Support
So we now have a small collection of words and phrases, and even know how to put them together in a way that makes sense. But we don’t just want to know the words—we want to know how to speak them out loud. And if you’ve learned a language before, you’ll know that making the leap between knowing words and speaking them can be pretty difficult!
The first step to learning to speak is learning proper pronunciation.
Duolingo provides a simple pronunciation guide provided for some languages in the “Tips” section of the first couple of lessons. However, this isn’t included for all languages, and these sections aren’t extensive.
Further, tones get limited attention in languages like Chinese or completely skimmed over without any audio in languages like Vietnamese. This is an issue for learners who want to learn those languages: The wrong tone could have you saying the completely wrong word which can lead to misunderstandings and, at worst, can lead to uncomfortable situations.
Pronunciation guides aside, there’s audio included for words and sentences in your target language. For some languages, this audio is authentic, recorded by actual speakers. For others, the audio is computer-generated: not the best, but at least it’s there.
Some courses such as Swahili are missing audio altogether, though, leaving out two whole skills of language learning: listening and speaking.
So while Duolingo helps you build a good foundation in terms of words and grammar, it doesn’t really help you actually use the language in real-life situations.
Now, take this with a grain of salt considering that you’re reading this on a FluentU blog, but the entire goal of the FluentU language learning program is authentic audio and video in your target language.
And, you guessed it: There’s always native audio to listen to.
In FluentU’s extensive video library, choose your proficiency level and then find a video that interests you, and BAM!: you’re instantly immersed in the language. Best of all, each video comes with accurate transcriptions in the language as well as English translations. Simply click on an unknown word in the transcript for detailed information and a translation and then add the word to a flashcard deck for later review.
It Throws You into the Deep End with Non-Latin-based Scripts
So far, we’ve been assuming that we’re learning a Latin-based language (which gives us an advantage as English speakers). Let’s say, however, that the language we’re learning uses an alphabet that is not Latin-based. In this case, we’ve reached our first true Duolingo shortfall.
Teaching non-Latin alphabets is a little tricky to do in this gamified format.
Learning a language with different letters isn’t too bad, such as the case with Russian, but languages that use logograms such as Japanese and Chinese or that use syllabaries such as Korean (and, again, Japanese) throw learners right into the deep end: Duolingo uses these characters without much explanation, and their English transcriptions are a little confusing.
So, does Duolingo do a good job of teaching beginner learners their new target language?
Well, the answer is “mostly yes, but sort of no.”
If the language you’re learning has pronunciation that’s similar to English or lots of pronunciation support such as a pronunciation guide and corresponding audio, you’re smooth sailing! This is mostly the case for common European languages such as Spanish, French and even Turkish. With Duolingo’s combination of common words, sentence building and detailed pronunciation information, you’ll be speaking your language at a B1 level in no time.
However, if the language you’re learning lacks pronunciation support features on Duolingo’s end or has a writing system that’s completely different from the Latin-based alphabet, you may need to couple Duolingo with some other learning method.
For languages like Swahili, the lack of audio recordings may be a small problem if matched with an audio-learning resource, but for languages like Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean, Duolingo simply lacks the tools to learn these robust writing systems and tonal systems accurately.
That doesn’t mean Duolingo is useless for teaching these languages to beginners, however—it just means you’ll need to supplement Duolingo’s weaknesses with another method.
Does Duolingo Work for Intermediate and Advanced Learners?
After a couple more lessons on Duolingo, we’ve got a groove going! We’ve tackled some topical subjects such as “Clothing,” “Family” and “Around Town,” and we’ve been learning more and more each day.
We can now solidly call ourselves “high-beginners” in the language, and we’re ready to move on to more complicated concepts. We want to move away from very simple sentences and become better at expressing our needs, opinions and complex thoughts.
Can Duolingo take us from the beginner level and move us into the intermediate or even advanced territory?
Duolingo Tries to Be a Well-rounded Language Learning Method
One of the highlights of Duolingo is that it spreads its practice across the four essential skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing.
As we complete more lessons, we have the chance to level them up as we go. Level 1 gets us familiar to the words and phrases through matching exercises and dragging words into sentences, but pretty soon, we’re writing the sentences from scratch, transcribing audio sentences in our target language and recording our own voice!
Because this four-skill combination is traditionally considered essential for basic proficiency, Duolingo can be beneficial for those who want to develop their skills in a more balanced way.
It doesn’t remedy the fact that we might not be pronouncing the words correctly, but the ability to make and speak our own sentences is a great step toward really learning to use the language.
Duolingo Doesn’t Teach Real-life Speaking Skills
One thing I noticed, though, is that Duolingo’s choice of sentences can be pretty, well… strange. Duolingo is notorious for having learners master weird and unnatural sentences they probably won’t use. In fact, there’s a whole Tumblr page about it.
Other than the sentences that Duolingo has you record, you don’t actually get to speak the language with anyone. In fact, there’s no place to interact with other learners or native speakers. Sure, there’s a Duolingo forum, but it’s not possible to practice the language there, let alone speak it.
This means that learners are essentially learning stock phrases: Without another person such as a native speaker to practice with, it’s almost impossible to use the language fluidly in a real-life situation simply because there’s no way to practice that skill with the Duolingo platform.
Artificial vs. Real Language Usage
By its very nature, the Duolingo platform is a controlled, artificial environment that programs learners with its own “version” of that language. However, going out into the real world can be a very different experience.
There are so many different ways to say the same thing—but because Duolingo only really teaches you one way to say it, your conversations will end up stilted and unnatural.
Plus, even though there’s a fair amount of vocabulary covered on the platform, it’s not diverse or challenging enough to amass a large and varied core vocabulary. You don’t get to pick and choose which vocabulary words you’re learning (which you’d want to if you have a goal in mind!), which makes your learning artificial.
Due to the repetition of more basic words, if learners put all their faith in the platform, there’s still going to be a gap in their knowledge. Vocabulary constitutes a large slice of the language learning pie, after all.
In this way, the Duolingo method isn’t as effective as a method to learn a language or at least the real, authentic version of a language.
A more natural way to learn vocabulary is through online immersion programs such as the video lessons from FluentU. By using real-world video and audio lessons, you learn the language that’s actually used by native speakers. In other words, FluentU teaches you all the different ways people express themselves in the language in a natural environment.
In fact, the primary goal of FluentU is to get you comfortable with everyday language, by combining all the benefits of complete immersion and native-level conversation. Add in easy-to-read subtitles and supplementary resources such as quizzes and flashcards, and you’ll find understanding and engaging in conversations in your target language a breeze!
After an optimistic verdict for Duolingo’s effectiveness for beginner learners, does this popular app hold the same benefits for intermediate and advanced learners?
Well, let’s just say that Duolingo has “front-loaded” its language learning method.
What does that mean? While Duolingo excels at teaching common words and phrases to beginner learners, coupled with audio support and grammatical explanations, it never truly transitions learners over to the “real-world context” that’s needed at the intermediate and advanced stages.
Besides the fact that you probably won’t ever have to ask somebody if they’ve seen your tarantula, Duolingo’s model alone makes it impossible for learners to create and interpret more than just one sentence at a time in the language they are learning, and there are definitely no opportunities for spontaneous language use with native speakers or fellow learners.
Because of this, reaching our goal of a B1 level so that we can easily and seamlessly understand and communicate in our target language in most situations may be beyond what Duolingo is able to teach us.
Does Duolingo Work as a Standalone Language Learning Program?
To examine whether or not Duolingo “works,” it’s important to keep in mind that any platform or resource largely depends on what the learner makes of it.
This means that its time to look back at our goal: We wondered if Duolingo could teach you enough of the language to get by for a month-long stay in a foreign country. Well, the answer to that is a little complicated.
Assuming that you use Duolingo as it’s supposed to be used—actually logging on every day, making full use of its features, going back to review occasionally—it’s likely that you’ll still struggle to learn a language from only Duolingo.
The opportunities for actually speaking the language are quite limited, and the lack of authentic content, vocabulary and grammar explanations would render this program difficult to use as a sole language learning method.
Not All Languages are Created Equally
The title of this section can be applied two-fold to Duolingo.
Firstly, some languages on Duolingo are clearly the program’s priority. For example, the Spanish course has many lessons as well as corresponding Stories (short stories), Tiny Cards (flashcards) and even a podcast. The same can be said for languages like French or German.
For other languages like Russian or Hebrew, however, Duolingo only offers the base learning tree. As previously mentioned, some languages are even missing audio, and some “Tips” sections are rather scant.
Secondly, different languages require different approaches, but since Duolingo applies the same methodology to all the languages it teaches, you might not be studying your chosen language in the most efficient way.
For European languages that use the Latin alphabet, Duolingo is rather effective. Throw in a different alphabet or a grammar that’s vastly different from European languages—such as Chinese logograms or Japanese honorifics—and Duolingo’s simple, five-minutes-a-day structure is not robust enough to handle these needs.
So, Does Duolingo Work?
So, what’s the bottom line with Duolingo? Sure, it works—but only up to a certain point.
It’ll get you started with the language, introduce you to some vocabulary and basic sentence structures and let you get a taste of the language.
However, although there’s no consensus about which level language learners reach upon completing a tree—meaning we don’t know if we can actually get to the intermediate-level using Duolingo alone—it’s certainly not going to take you to an advanced or fluent level.
What About FluentU?
We’ve mentioned FluentU a few times throughout this post. Now that you know if Duolingo can really teach you a language, you might be curious how FluentU stacks up against the same question. Namely, can FluentU help you reach that B1 or intermediate level needed to survive for a month in your foreign country of choice?
We might be (obviously) biased, but we think the answer is “yes”!
Because FluentU uses native video and audio content, learning the pronunciation of your target language is never a challenge. Not only do you hear words pronounced clearly in your chosen video itself, but you can also click on any word in the built-in transcript to listen to its pronunciation more carefully.
FluentU’s interface also makes learning a language’s writing system an effortless experience. With FluentU, learning Chinese or Japanese characters happens with ease! Not only can you see these characters in natural contexts with native corresponding audio, but there are even videos that teach you how to write these characters.
Even though FluentU doesn’t explicitly teach you grammar, with FluentU’s online immersion environment, that’s not an issue. With FluentU’s extensive library of videos for all levels of language learning—beginner, intermediate and advanced levels—you learn grammar naturally without any tedious memorization or grammar drills.
What are you waiting for? Sign up for FluentU’s free trial!
Like all language learning apps and resources, Duolingo is simply one useful tool in a sea of many to help you on the road to proficiency, and it’s undeniable that Duolingo is a language learning app that has changed the world.
Variety is the spice of life, after all, and in combination with other language learning methods, Duolingo could be a fantastic component of a well-rounded language learning regimen.
Sophie McDonald is a freelance content writer with a burning passion for writing and languages. You can find her Twitter page here where she is probably talking about writing and languages.
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